Sunday 11 May 2014
Gilford, New Hampshire, 5 May 2014. At a school board meeting open to the public, one William Baer, attorney and recent immigrant from New Jersey, arose to object to a novel that his daughter’s 9th grade English class was required to read. This literary gem, Nineteen Minutes, was published in 2007 by Jodi Picoult, Long Island native, Granite State transplant, and a popular writer of coming-of-age and trendy, edgy family issues stories. The novel seems to center around a school shooting incident. There’s also bullying, gay-bashing, mean teen cliques, parent-child drama, violent video game addiction, murder, suicide – all the good stuff. I haven’t read it.
But that’s not what lit Mr Baer’s fuse. No, it was a passage in which two teens have sex in the date-rape style: “She could feel his erection, hot against her stomach. … ‘Yeah,’ he groaned, and he pushed her thighs apart. And then suddenly Matt was inside her, pumping her so hard that she scooted backward on the carpet, burning the backs of her legs. … Semen, sticky and hot, pooled on the carpet beneath her.” Classic stuff, that. And there’s more! The girl gets pregnant, considers abortion, has a miscarriage, commits murder, goes to prison, etc.
Anyway, Mr Baer asked the Superintendent, one Mr Hemingway, to read the passage out loud. Ms Sue Allen, prim School Board chairperson, put the kibosh on that by limiting public comments to two minutes, prohibiting anyone from speaking a second time, and refusing to allow Board members to read aloud any material submitted at the meeting. She must have known something was up. When another parent protested that Mr Baer and others who shared his antiquated views would become censorious and dictatorial if allowed their way, Mr Baer responded to the absurdity of the remark with appropriate ridicule. A Board official asked him to be respectful, to whom he replied, “Like you’re respectful of my daughter, right? And my children?” In making these and other animadversions he exceeded Gilford parliamentary rules.
So a local police lieutenant then clapped the perp in manacles and hauled him off to the calaboose, right in front of his daughter Marina. Ms Baer, an icon of poise and controlled outrage, then returned to the meeting, respectfully asked to speak, and said the following: “I just watched my father get arrested because he broke the two-minute rule at a board of education meeting. This just shows you resort to force at the first turn of conflict and I’m appalled. I don’t trust you. I haven’t. I honestly don’t feel safe around you people.” Without Terence’s irony, Domi habuit unde disceret (She had at home an example from which to learn).
Gilford HS freshmen have been assigned this trash since its publication, always with an opt-out notice for parents. Except they forgot to send the notice out this year. The Board is now revising its policies. But they and the Principal defend Nineteen Minutes for its “thematic importance.” And they “apologize for the discomfort of those impacted.” Oh, okay, then. As long as everyone’s comfortable. Fox News’ Todd Starnes asked Mr Hemingway about the quality of the work, to which the Principal replied “I’m not going to make a decision on pornographic material.” Ms Picoult claims that this and the rest of her oeuvre help parents and children engage in meaningful conversations. Or something. She has an M. A. in Education from Harvard and she taught English in school for a year or two, so it’s all good.
Only a few miles north of Gilford is Squam Lake, where much of the 1981 movie On Golden Pond was shot. In that film a cynical brat named Billy Ray (played by Doug McKeon), about the same age as Marina Baer, is forced to live for a summer month with Norman, a crabby old retired professor, and his wife (Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn, respectively), while Hanoi Jane, playing Norman’s estranged daughter Chelsea, and Dabney Coleman, as Bill Ray the divorced dentist dad, dump the kid there to run off to Europe and get married. In one memorable scene Norman asks Billy Ray what he normally does to keep himself occupied. The kid tells him that he likes to “suck face” with girls. Old Norman bosses him upstairs to read Treasure Island. This of course is a metaphor for the restorative recovery of innocence — through good books — in a jaded, soulless, sensually-addicted generation. It works for Billy Ray and for Norman also. But it’s also a joke: even in 1981 this was yearning for a vanished world. No free “empowering” internet porn, no thematically important porno-pop novels then.
We’re much more sophisticated now, thanks to cool writers like J. Picoult. Now we have the honorable members of a School Board in a Rockwellian New England village arresting a man for doing his moral human duty as a father to protect his virtuous daughter from temptation and evil delivered by the State. Tell me, why should not old men be mad?